Home Of Mercy Gwen Harwood

HOME OF MERCY #

*         * This is an early poem illustrating an angry bitter Gwen Harwood.   An uncompromisingly hard edged indictment of how we treat the disadvantaged. No holds barred – no punches pulled.  A complete negation of Christian charity; love and dutiful care.

The irony of the title becomes glaringly obvious.  The anonymous girls are described as “ruined”, how is not made clear.  The regimentation is evident by them walking two by two, perhaps, better to be counted, beside the neat grass under the severe judgments of old nuns.   Appearance of order.  The symbolism is sterile and oppressive; even the saints are represented through a cold plaster.  There is no aura of warmth, love or mercy, a total perversion of Christian doctrine and the love and compassion taught by Jesus.  

The tightly controlled sonnet form echoes the restrictive and oppression of the strict rules of the convent competing with natural youth of innocence and innate desires.   The public prayers provide some respite where these mischievous children in distress can escape into their dreams and fantasies.  

The laundering of their and others sins is symbolised by the cycles of the machines, while at night on the girls on their own continue their wrestling with their demons between their souls and carnal desires.  These are the fallen women, that society has failed.

Home of Mercy

        *By two and two the ruined girls are walking
        at the neat margin of the convent grass
        into the chapel, counted as they pass
        by an old nun who silences their talking.*

       They smooth with roughened hands the clumsy dress
        that hides their ripening bodies. Memories burn
        like incense as towards plaster saints they turn
        faces of mischievous children in distress

       They kneel: time for the spirit to begin
       with prayer its sad recourse to dream and flight
       from their intolerable weekday rigour
       Each morning they will launder, for their sin
       sheets soiled by other bodies, and at night
       angels will wrestle them with brutish vigour.*

The irony of the title becomes glaringly obvious.  The anonymous girls are described as “ruined”, how is not made clear.  The regimentation is evident by them walking two by two, perhaps to be counted, beside the neat grass under the severe judgments of old nuns. 

Their roughened hands, due to drudgery, and their daggy dress contrast with the hope of their potentially *“ripening bodies”.  *

Another sterile image “plaster saints” is juxtaposed with their mischievous faces, further subverted by outward kneeling but indulging in dreams and fantasies instead of devout prayers. 

Their menial tasks is introduced by pejoratives like “intolerable, rigour and soiled sheets”.  Whose sheets, is not evident.

The last line sums up the struggle between the angelic, and the brutish.  The vigour of their fantasies , rhyming with the rigour of their daily chores.

The strict form of a sonnet with its tight rhyme echoes the strictures they endure.  The quatrains open and close with a finality due to the demands of the rhymes.

The film Philomena, set in Ireland portrays much the same harsh love.

A young Irish mother, is searching for her son, born out of wedlock, committed to a convent and sold to the highest bidder, an American couple.  When she attempts to find him, the Church not only fails to help her, but also fails the son, attempting a reunion with the mother.  The sisters claim their vow of chastity is enough to get them to heaven and young unmarried girls who have sexual pleasure and produce illegitimate children, should suffer in penance.  A complete negation of Christian love and charity. ** **

Filomena is a form of the Greek female given name Philomena. It means “friend of strength” (φιλος (philos) “friend, lover” and μενος (menos) “mind, purpose, strength, courage”) or “loved one” (Philomel - an Athenian princess in Greek mythology raped and deprived of her tongue by her brother-in-law Tereus, avenged by the killing of his son, and changed into a nightingale while fleeing from him.)